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‘The Nine Muses - Terpsichore (Dance) (1782) by Johann Heinrich Tischbein.

Terpsichore: The Muse of Dance Who Moved in Time with the Rhythm of the Cosmos

In ancient Greece, nine goddesses were believed to rule over all the major literary and artistic spheres. They were called the Muses. The Muse ruling dance and choral music was Terpsichore. In addition to dance, she has more recently been invoked as a metaphor for rhythm and ordered movement in the universe, such as mechanical oscillations.

Origin of the Muses

In Archaic Greece, the Muses were simply goddesses associated with song and dance. There were also originally only three Muses. During the Classical Age, the number of Muses increased to nine. It was also during the Classical Age that the Muses were each assigned a literary sphere: Calliope the Muse of epic poetry, Clio the Muse of history, Euterpe the Muse of lyric poetry, Erato the Muse of love poetry, Melpomene the Muse of tragedy, Polyhymnia the Muse of hymns, Thalia the Muse of comedy, Urania the Muse of astronomy, and Terpsichore the Muse of dance and choral music.

‘Calliope, Urania and Terpsichore’ (17th Century) by Pierre Mignard. (Public Domain)

Calliope, Urania and Terpsichore’ (17th Century) by Pierre Mignard. ( Public Domain )

In mythological terms, the Muses are descended from Zeus by Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. They dwelt in the land of Pieria in the foothills of Mount Olympus, which was watered by springs from the mountain. According to Greek mythology, they would go up from Pieria to the slopes of Olympus to sing of the gods and of their father Zeus, ruler of the universe.

In later mythology, the Muses were compared to the sirens . Both were female figures known for being singers of beautiful songs. The main difference is that the Muses were associated with Olympus and sang to enrich men’s souls. The sirens were chthonic and sang to trap men and destroy them.

All the arts were believed to come from the muses; including skills such as writing poems, interpreting the stars, and singing. It is appropriate that their mother was the goddess of memory. Dance was considered as an equally important art as poetry and songs, possibly because it could be used as a physical demonstration of past stories.

‘The Muse Terpsichore’ (1450-1460) by Cosimo Tura. (Public Domain)

‘The Muse Terpsichore’ (1450-1460) by Cosimo Tura. ( Public Domain )

Terpsichore the Goddess of Dance and Rhythm

In art and sculpture, Terpsichore is depicted as being seated with a lyre. She is still associated with dance today. This is reflected in the adjective terpsichorean which refers to things related to dance.

The importance of Terpsichore and the other muses in Greek thought illustrates the importance of music in Greek culture. In ancient Greece, music was considered the mark of a civilized man. Music, however, was broader than just what is thought of as music today. Music also covered dance and poetry in addition to instrumental music and singing. These all together were considered to nourish the soul.

‘Terpsichore mit Lorbeerkranz und Lyra’ (Terpsichore with laurel wreath and lyre) (1759) by Johann Heinrich Tischbein. (Public Domain)

Terpsichore mit Lorbeerkranz und Lyra’ (Terpsichore with laurel wreath and lyre) (1759) by Johann Heinrich Tischbein. ( Public Domain )

There is a discussion within classical studies as to whether the Muses were personifications. Although the Muses were closely associated with their artistic spheres, they also had an existence beyond it. Terpsichore, for example, was also a mother and a wife. (In later mythology, she became the mother of several sirens including Parthenope by the river god Achelous.) Because of this, they appear to have been more than mere abstract entities to the ancient Greeks.

Today, Terpsichore is used often as a metaphor for, or personification of, dance. Terpsichore is also invoked in subjects beyond dance that have a sort of ordered movement or rhythm.

Terpsichore, Muse of Choral Song and Dance. Source: Glenn Marsch/CC BY NC ND 2.0

Terpsichore, Muse of Choral Song and Dance. Source: Glenn Marsch/ CC BY NC ND 2.0

A Terpsichorean Universe and the Cosmic Dance

An example of Terpsichore being referenced outside of dance is in the realm of physics. The planets orbit the sun and the sun, with other stars, orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy . Additionally, the planets go through cycles called Milankovitch cycles in which their orbits around the sun adjust in very regular, periodic, or rhythmic, ways.

Furthermore, electromagnetic and mechanical oscillations, such as a pendulum in a clock, are also very common in nature. If these regular, ordered patterns of movement in the universe could be thought of as a sort of natural dance, then these natural movements could be thought of as terpsichorean in a sense. It could be said that Terpsichore’s influence goes beyond just the human arts. It also can be seen in the observable universe.

The nature of sediments can vary in a cyclic fashion, and these cycles can be displayed in the sedimentary record. Here, cycles can be observed in the coloration and resistance of different strata. (Verisimulis/CC BY 3.0)

The nature of sediments can vary in a cyclic fashion, and these cycles can be displayed in the sedimentary record. Here, cycles can be observed in the coloration and resistance of different strata. (Verisimulis/ CC BY 3.0 )

In addition to the mechanical movements of planets and pendulums, herds of antelope, flocks of birds, and schools of fish all move in a coordinated way that could be considered a type of dance.

Some science writers and historians have taken note of the “terpsichorean motion” seen in nature and have referenced Terpsichore as a metaphor for periodic motion as well as the periodicity of cycles used to keep track of time , such as phases of the moon .

Terpsichore and the Old Religion

The earliest forms of dance had a specifically religious purpose. One purpose of these early dances was probably to somehow participate in these patterns that govern the universe.

Dances in ancient Greece tended to be religious processions or re-enactments of myths, though there were also forms of dancing that were just for entertainment. As a result, dance also played an important role in the religious life of the ancient Greeks. Thus, it makes sense that they would have a goddess devoted to dance.

Terpsichore – Muse of Dancing. (thermalknight/Deviant Art)

Terpsichore – Muse of Dancing. (thermalknight/ Deviant Art )

Terpsichore the Muse Today

Terpsichore still is important in the domain of dance, though her reign appears to have broadened. She is now the Muse not just of human dance but also the cosmic dance in which the whole universe participates.

Top Image: ‘T he Nine Muses - Terpsichore (Dance) (1782) by Johann Heinrich Tischbein. ( Public Domain )

By Caleb Strom

References

Lawler, Lillian B. "The Maenads: a contribution to the Study of the dance in Ancient

Greece." Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome  6 (1927): 69-112.

Lévy-Leblond, Jean-Marc. "The Muses of Science: A Utopian Oracle."  Science & Education  23.4 (2014): 719-725.

Murray, Penelope. "Plato’s Muses: the Goddesses that Endure."  Cultivating the Muse:

Struggles for Power and Inspiration in Classical Literature  (2002): 29-46.

Murray, Penelope. "The Muses: creativity personified?"  Personification in the Greek World . Routledge, 2017. 147-159.

Newton, Roger G.  Galileo's Pendulum . Harvard University Press, 2009. “Terpsikhore.” Theoi.com. Available at: http://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/MousaTerpsikhore.html

Pollard, John RT. "Muses and Sirens."  The Classical Review 2.2 (1952): 60-63.

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